We’ve all heard it before, “good ‘ol so-and-so kicked the bucket.” We have a strange amount of euphemisms for death in the English language when you give it a thought. It’s probably in no small part due to how taboo discussing death is in Western (read: primarily English-speaking) culture. Anyway, we’ve explored fun English turns of phrase before; so let’s investigate why we kick the bucket.
Why Do We Kick the Bucket?
Perhaps the easiest place to pin down “kicking the bucket” is by using the most literal definition. You know, by assuming it has and always has originated with the idea of mortality.
Honestly, it’s more likely than not that this is the case, unlike how little sense the phrase “cold turkey” seems to make.
Further Reading: Why Do We Say We’re Going “Cold Turkey”?
Anyway, kicking the bucket seems to have originated in the 1785 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue to simply mean “die” as a verb. Says a lot about English culture to where the simple act of dying is considered cardinally vulgar, up there with the likes of “diddle” and “clobber.” It appeared again in John Badcock’s 1823 slang dictionary.
So, the origin. It’s more likely than not that it lies simply in slaughter and suicide. One or the other.
Buckets and Slaughter
This theory seems to make more common appearances than its more intuitive counterpart. But we’ll get to both.
We’re not going to get into the process of animal slaughter, but way back in the day animals were hung up on these big bars. This was done either before they were killed (and as they were killed), or after.
This beam was often referred to as the “bucket,” likely owing its etymology to the French word trebuchet. In William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, there is reference to a execution and buckets, so this likely isn’t too far off. Preface, some hangings were done with similar bars, with the same name.
“Swifter than he that gibbets on the Brewer’s Bucket.”
Of course, dying is no fun or easy process. A slaughtered animal is going to kick around, thus “kicking the bucket” they’re hanging from.
Buckets and Suicide
We referenced hangings earlier, and the term “kick the bucket” may also refer to suicide by hanging as well. Granted, given that the bars used to hang slaughtered animals had the same name as the ones people were hanged from, it’s not unlikely that the origins could also lie in human execution.
Regardless; suicide by hanging required our old 18th-Century chaps to stand on a bucket. They would hang by kicking the bucket out from under themselves (or by having someone else do it).
So, that’s another quite easy origin, you literally kicked a bucket and then killed yourself.
Buckets and the Holy
According to Catholic Priest Abbott Horne, kicking the bucket may actually refer to post-death Catholic traditions.
“After death, when the body had been laid out, […] the holy-water bucket was brought from the church and put at the feet of the corpse. [… ]So intimately therefore was the bucket associated with the feet of deceased persons, that it is easy to see how such a saying as ‘kicking the bucket ‘ came about. Many other explanations of this saying have been given by persons who are unacquainted with Catholic custom.”
The idea was that somebody dies and the Catholics would put a bucket in front of the body (filled with holy water). People would pass by and sprinkle some of that water of the recently deceased in order to pay their respects.
It seems odd that anyone would kick the holy water bucket–it seems disrespectful to the dead and the water. Ergo, we’re not sure why Priest Horne thinks this is such an easy connection. But hey, it exists, we suppose.
Death euphemisms are fun. Here are a lot.